Why Diversity Is Needed In Cybersecurity – My Unique Experience Helps Protect People

October 25, 2017

As a director of security at Facebook, I’m in a position to help more than 2 billion people feel safe while using our service. I work a lot with students, many of whom ask me how I got to where I am, and I tell them I’m not sure there is a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, I would say it’s my unique experience that helped put me in this position. Here is my story, including some of the lessons that I’ve learned which led me to this role.

Study STEM

I grew up in a small town in Northern India and I was very fortunate that my family encouraged me to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). From a very young age, my grandparents told me to become an electrical engineer like my father.

Look Forward, Focus

Years later, I was selecting a major for my undergraduate program because, unlike many in the United States, students attending Indian universities have to choose their majors at the time of admission. I was eager to choose electrical engineering, but my father recommended computer engineering, as he was aware that it was a growing field and there would be many more opportunities. He convinced me that soon everything would be computerized, including electrical power plants! I trusted him and selected computer engineering as my major. Like any kid who is away from home for the first time, I found my initial few weeks tough. I was so homesick, I wanted to cry and run back home, but my mother told me, “If your dad sees you crying like this, he will take you home, and then that is it. If you want to become an engineer, focus on that and do not get too distracted by small interruptions.” I ended up enjoying the coursework and started working as a software engineer. I met my husband and came to the United States.

Be Bold

I was working for a startup as a software engineer during the “Dot-com Bust,” and the company wasn’t doing very well, so I began looking for a change. I applied for a role at Yahoo and received a call from the hiring manager. Halfway through the discussion, he told me that they were looking for a senior manager for this role and I didn’t have the relevant experience. Somehow, I convinced him that they needed to bring me onsite, and they would not regret that decision. In the end, they found a more appropriate role for me, and I found a mentor who still teases me about the courage and directness I showed to this day.

Empathy Conquers

I was at Yahoo following a career path to become an engineering manager (and later a director), when I received a message from Skype for their product security lead role. As I did not see myself as a security expert, I was not interested in the proposed position; however, because the team was visiting from Europe, and they wanted to meet in person, I interviewed for the role to be polite. I was sure I would make a huge fool of myself during the interview – apparently, I did not. They made me an offer, but still I felt unprepared for the position. I asked my then hiring manager why they would employ an engineer who did not specialize in security to lead one of their important security functions. He said that I performed fine on the security-related technical questions that were asked and, as an engineering leader, would collaborate and work with the engineering team. Given my engineering background, I would be more willing to work along with them, as I knew the time-driven and priority-based challenges engineering teams face.

Being a security leader is challenging, as one must be focused on difficult issues and try to land tough changes. Understanding others’ pain and empathizing with them will help you accomplish this collaboratively. Through this experience, I learned an important lesson about diversity and hiring. Hiring a team of people proficient in the same exact skill is not as good as building a team with different genders, ethnicities and capabilities. In this case, I was an engineer who had different experiences than other candidates with security backgrounds. With this, I was convinced to join the Skype team, where I went on to becoming chief information security officer (CISO) under my hiring manager’s mentorship.

After staying with Skype for five years – and working with and learning from some very talented individuals – I moved on to Facebook where I am focused on building a team of security experts who help to keep the platform secure.

My Advice

To parents: Girls should receive STEM education and we as parents should encourage them to consider a career in it. Don’t forget to support your kids with critical decision-making. There will be moments when they will feel overwhelmed and may start to doubt their decisions; that’s when we should have them relate back to their dreams.

To engineers: Having confidence and courage helps. There will be times when you will see an opportunity that will not totally align with your skill set. Push yourself to take on that challenge. Technology is always changing, and continuous learning is the only way to stay current. Continue to explore new technological areas and prepare for the future. Even though you may not be an expert in each field, you can still bring diversity of thought and experience, and that is invaluable.

To everyone else: I have a strong network of coaches and mentors who give me excellent advice. Sometimes, the advice feels very counterintuitive, but having the trust in your mentors and knowing that they have your best interest in mind helps. Build a strong network of mentors and give back to the community by assisting younger generations.

For example, Facebook hosts middle- and high school students on campus to give them a day in a security engineer’s life. If more companies start to do this, it will encourage more students to pursue STEM education, potentially leading to a career in cybersecurity.

These days I am the one who tinkers with most electrical issues and projects at home, and my family (especially my father), always worries that someday I will set the house on fire.

About the Author

Aanchal Gupta is director of security at Facebook. She leads a global team responsible for assessing and mitigating security risks across the platform. Her team provides long-term security guidance to Facebook’s diverse product offerings, including Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Oculus and WhatsApp. In addition, Aanchal’s team is responsible for ensuring the security of Facebook’s corporate infrastructure, defining security policy, red-team exercises, vendor security reviews and ensuring compliance.

Prior to joining Facebook, she was CISO at Microsoft for Skype and Skype for Business. Before joining Microsoft, Aanchal led Yahoo’s global identity team, contributing to various authentication and authorization open standards such as OpenID and OAuth.

Aanchal serves on technical advisory boards for security startups, CloudKnox Security Inc. and ThreatWatch Inc. Aanchal is an active speaker at key industry and digital innovation events. She is passionate about building diverse teams and has served on the review committee for the Grace Hopper conference. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.